For decades, many wine lovers and producers discounted biodynamic farming as nothing more than pseudoscience. That’s starting to change as evidence mounts of the philosophy’s positive impact on vineyard health and wine flavor—even as its more out-there aspects remain unproven.
“We found that after converting to biodynamic farming, our vines were stronger, healthier and more disease tolerant,” notes Jasper Raats, cellar master and managing director at Longridge Wine Estate, first planted in 1841 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. “And the wines themselves also have a zest and vitality that was missing previously.”
For those unfamiliar with biodynamic farming, it is a holistic approach to land management rooted in the early 20th-century work of Austrian-born educator and social reformer Dr. Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s philosophy regards each farm as a self-sustaining system that entails a very specific form of organic farming, influenced by astrological and spiritual principles as well as lunar and cosmic cycles. Farming is planned around an astronomical calendar, and each day represents an element—fire, water, earth or air. There are also fruit days, which are ideal for harvesting; leaf days, which are best for watering; root days for pruning; and on flower days, the vineyard must be left alone.
In biodynamic farming, the farm is viewed as a whole living organism, requiring a diversity of animal and plant species—with an emphasis on pasture, native plants and pollinator plants—to thrive. In biodynamic farming, practitioners believe that everything you need to make the plants healthy is on the farm, including natural pesticides.
It should be noted that Steiner himself had a problematic history of racist thought that the biodynamic movement and the educational institutions he inspired have repudiated in modern times. One of his books, The Occult Significance of Blood, first published in 1906, contains this disturbing passage: “To what extent are uncivilized peoples capable of become civilized? How can a Negro or an utterly barbaric savage become civilized? And in what way we ought to deal with them?”
Can a person’s words and actions be truly separated from their work? All of the wine producers interviewed here roundly reject Steiner’s racist ideology, and instead focus completely on his farming philosophies. But Steiner’s background certainly casts a shadow over his legacy and that of biodynamic farming.
Investment in Farm Health
Skepticism of biodynamic farming is understandable. Some of its imperatives seem to be pulled from a Saturday Night Live skit: Farm by the rhythms of the moon. Bury a cow (never a bull!) horn crammed with manure in the soil all winter. Dig it up and turn it into a tea that farmers spritz over the vines in a bid to increase a plant’s immunity.
Other biodynamic practices, like applying compost with animal manure and plant material, rejecting GMO plant material and the use of medicinal herbs like yarrow and dandelion to naturally combat pests are less head-scratching.
But here’s the thing: Biodynamic farming seems to work, at least by certain measures. While the efficacy of specific practices remains unclear, a recent review in the journal Organic Agriculture of 147 peer-reviewed scientific studies show that when considered broadly, biodynamic farming seems to enhance soil quality and vineyard biodiversity. It’s convincing enough evidence to convert some farmers.
“I started converting to biodynamic farming in 2011,” says Raats. “I saw the overall health of my vineyard and the farms of many of my friends diminishing, and I saw it as a direct result of what we were putting into our soil. Even organic treatments like copper degrade the soils over time.”
After more than a decade-plus of biodynamic farming, he says that his vineyard’s immunity has strengthened considerably.
“It used to be that when we pruned, the branches that fell would take years to break down if we just left them there,” Raats says. “Now we prune in the winter, and by summer, the soils have absorbed and broken down those branches.”
Raats goes on to say that after measuring the organic matter of the soil each year it has continued to increase, and the number of healthy micro-organisms has “skyrocketed.”
“It’s like organic farming on steroids; our plants are so much stronger now and can naturally fight off fungus and disease, and are much more drought-tolerant now because the roots have gone deeper into the soil.”
Peter Fraser, winemaker and general manager at the certified biodynamic Yangarra Estate Vineyard in Australia’s McLaren Vale, says he has also seen an increase in “microbial activity in the soil” since converting to biodynamic farming in 2012. Fraser, like many other winegrowers, measures the soil’s health in parts of his vineyard annually, noting increases and decreases. While microbial activity does vary year to year depending on weather, he says that overall, he has observed a significant upward arc in soil health and microbial activity.
“Without the influence of synthetic fertilizers, the plant can better uptake the natural and native elements in the soil and parent rock,” Fraser claims.
At Yangarra Estate, the soil is naturally imbued with iron, and Fraser says that biodynamic farming, which encourages deep root growth and superior water and nutrient absorption, has created a distinct “ferrous thumbprint that runs through our wines,” adding that the unifying element was not apparent previously.
Farming for the Future
Many see biodynamic farming as not only a way to create better wine today, but to create a better environment in and around the vineyard tomorrow.
“We were the first producer in South Africa to commit to both organic and biodynamic farming,” says winemaker Johan Reyneke of Reyneke Wines, adding that they scaled up from about 0.61 acres of biodynamically-farmed vines to almost 300 over several years. “I want to make the world a better place. I have two young girls, and I want to leave the world and our farm in a better place than I found it.”
Reyneke contends that farming biodynamically with his team of cows, chickens and ducks—all of which contribute soil-health-boosting manure and aerate the earth with their hooves and webbed toes—create a stronger vineyard that can better withstand diseases and adverse climactic conditions. Plus, the chickens devour weevils and ducks eliminate snails, both serious threats to vineyards in South Africa.
Since converting to biodynamic farming, Reyneke says that levels of humus (beneficial nonliving organic matter in soil derived from the decomposition of plant and animal substances) have finally increased to a level where he can see results.
“The microclimate of the vineyard has improved considerably, too,” Reyneke says. “With conventional farming, you are propping up the vines and soils artificially, and they become weak, [and] the soil is hotter.”
Biodynamic farming, especially with the help of cover crops, has naturally cooled the soil down, he says, adding that his operation’s “irrigation requirements are half of what they used to be.” And when it does rain, the runoff and erosion Reyneke contended with previously are no longer an issue.
“Our soil can retain and absorb the moisture now,” he says.
Making Superior Wine
But do biodynamic farming practices result in better wine? A long-term replicated study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in 2005 showed that when compared to an organic vineyard, a biodynamically-farmed vineyard had significantly higher levels of brix, a measure of a grape’s sugar content. It also boasted higher levels of phenols, which are compounds that affect bitterness and depth of color. They have also been shown to have antioxidants, which may avert cellular damage in humans. Finally, the biodynamic farm’s soil was richer in anthocyanins, which have been touted in countless studies as having antiviral, antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Other winemakers contend that their biodynamically-farmed wines require less intervention in the cellar than they did before. “Our wines are now much more balanced,” says Reyneke. “We don’t need to add tartaric acid in the cellar.”
Claire Villars-Lurton, owner of Chateau Haut-Bages Libéral in Bordeaux, who began converting her 100 acres in 2007, echoes Reyneke’s observations.
“We used to have to balance the acidity of our wines,” Villars-Lurton says, noting that some chaptalization—the addition of calcium carbonate to neutralize acid, or sugar to boost alcoholic content—is permitted in Bordeaux to increase alcohol levels and harmonize flavors. “For the past 15 years, we have not had to do that.”
Villars-Lurton continues, “We also don’t have to use nearly as many sulfites. Our wines naturally taste better, rounder and more approachable at a young age. Because we are so focused on the natural health of the vineyard, it leads to fresher, more complex wines, and grapes that are more disease resilient.”
And it may not just be wishful thinking on the part of winemakers. Biodynamic wine truly does seem to taste better, at least according to some. A UCLA analysis of 74,000 reviews from wine magazines found that biodynamic farming has a “small but significant positive effect on wine quality.”
Meanwhile, sales of biodynamic wine increased more than 700% in the U.S. to about $6 million in four years as of March 2021, according to Nielsen sales data. Year-over-year, dollar sales increased 33% and volumes were up 27%, which suggests that on average, buyers are also shelling out more for each bottle sold.
Is biodynamic wine here to stay? The winemakers mentioned here certainly think so. If it’s truly better for the vines, the planet and the wines, the conversation about biodynamic winemaking has only just begun.